PHILADELPHIA -- Amid a wave of challenges nationally to books in school libraries, Pennsylvania experienced more book-banning activity from the second half of last year through this spring than almost any other state, according to a group supporting free expression in literature.
A report released last month by PEN America ranked Pennsylvania second only to Texas in book bans in schools — part of a national trend the group described as “a profound increase in both the number of books banned and the intense focus on books that relate to communities of color and LGBTQ+ subjects.”
Here’s what the group found and what’s happening in Pennsylvania.
Q. Why is Pa. so high on the list?
A. Pennsylvania had 456 bans between July 1 and March 31, according to PEN, behind Texas’s 716. But the vast majority of those occurred in one school district: Central York, where students drew national attention for a successful push reversing the restrictions on books about race and social justice.
The remaining 15 bans were reported in eight other districts, including several in the Philadelphia area: Downingtown, North Penn, Pennridge and Wissahickon. (Without Central York, Pennsylvania would tie with Missouri for ninth place in PEN’s list.)
Q. How was the study conducted?
A. PEN, which identified bans in 26 states, based its list on news reports, reviews of district websites, and correspondence with librarians and teachers. It hasn’t formally tracked bans in the past, but said it typically encounters only “a handful of such cases each year.”
But the national trend it identified was similar to what the American Library Association documented in a separate report last month — noting that the number of book challenges reported between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 was double the number of challenges in 2020, “putting 2021 totals on pace to break records.”
If anything, the number of restrictions on books may be understated, said Laura Ward, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. Librarians don’t always report when action is taken against a book, making it difficult to track, she said.
“There are a lot more challenges happening across the state,” said Ward, a high school librarian in the Fox Chapel Area School District in suburban Pittsburgh. She said efforts to restrict books “started snowballing in the fall, and it’s just growing.”
Q. How are ‘book bans’ defined?
A. The PEN report counts as a ban any action taken against a book previously available to students due to objections to its content, resulting in its removal or restricted or diminished access for a period of at least one day.
Not all agree with that definition. In the Pennridge School District, for instance, Superintendent David Bolton said no books had been banned. Two books listed by PEN as “banned from classrooms” in the Bucks County district — "This is My America" by Kim Johnson, about racial injustice in the criminal justice system, and "American Street" by Ibi Zoboi, about a Haitian immigrant’s experience — “did not make the final list” for curriculum approved last year, Bolton said in an email. (At the time, residents were challenging the proposed curriculum as too focused on racial oppression.)
A third book PEN listed as “banned from libraries and classrooms” in Pennridge, "Heather Has Two Mommies" by Leslea Neuman, was pulled by an elementary school librarian as a “proactive step,” Bolton said, noting that at the start of the school year there were “multiple neighboring school districts, as well as others across Pennsylvania and the country, where library titles were questioned.” He said Pennridge then “began a review of our library resources to make sure that they were age-appropriate across all levels.”
"Heather Has Two Mommies" was later returned to library shelves, Bolton said.
Q. What are best practices when it comes to handling challenges to books?
A. Taking books out of circulation during challenges, even temporarily, runs counter to best practices from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association, according to PEN.
But many districts aren’t following those recommendations, PEN said: Of the 1,586 bans it tallied, 98% “have involved various departures from best practice guidelines” outlined by the NCAC and ALA — including instances of school leaders preemptively pulling books in anticipation of challenges.
The guidelines schools should be following, according to the report, include “the filing of written, formal challenges by parents or local residents; the formation of review committees, generally comprised of librarians, teachers, administrators, and community members; and that books are to remain in circulation during the reconsideration process until a final decision is made.”
While most school districts have library policies spelling out how collections are assembled and how challenges should be handled, some “quietly got rid of those policies,” Ward said — allowing for removals that don’t go through a formal process.
Q. What’s happening in those other suburban Philly districts?
A. In Downingtown, three books listed by PEN as “banned pending investigation” last October — "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," by Jesse Andrews; "All Boys Aren’t Blue," by George M. Johnson; and "Gender Queer," by Maia Kobabe — were temporarily taken from Downingtown High School West’s library, according to a district spokesperson.
The spokesperson, Jenn Shealy, said parents had voiced concerns about the books, and they were checked out so administrators and board members could read them. She said the district’s library curricular team also met to develop and share guidelines for selecting library books, and “in light of the newly developed criteria and legal guidance around the removal of books already contained in the library, it was determined that the books in question would remain on the shelves.”
The North Penn School District took three books off library shelves last fall — "All Boys Aren’t Blue" and "Gender Queer," as well as "Lawn Boy," by Jonathan Evison — and hasn’t yet returned them, according to the district.
A committee of librarians, teachers and administrators checked out the books after the district received parent complaints in October, said spokesperson Christine Liberaski. She said the committee’s review of the books is expected to be completed before the next school year.
In the Wissahickon School District, "Gender Queer" was removed from the library collection after a resident challenged the book in the fall, said spokesperson Kristen Rawlings. She said the challenge was handled according to school board policy, and a review committee decided to remove the book.
The district’s superintendent “then directed the library to find five other, new, age-appropriate titles that address the subject of gender identity and add them to the collection,” Rawlings said — a process that is still underway.
In contrast, the West Chester Area School District recently reviewed a challenge to "Gender Queer" and opted to keep the book on high school library shelves, in a decision the district framed as protecting both freedom of expression and the rights of LGBTQ students.
Q. Is there a reason for the latest uproar over these books?
A. The uptick in challenges comes as conservative politicians and activists have accused public schools of “indoctrinating” students around issues related to race and sexuality. The PEN report attributed 41% of the bans it tracked nationally to eight districts in Texas, South Carolina and Georgia, where schools faced political pressure.
In Texas, for instance, a state representative sent a list of 850 books to superintendents in October, asking for information about how many copies they had in their districts — and to identify “any other books” they had addressing topics including human sexuality, or containing material “that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
In some Philadelphia-area districts, parents speaking at school board meetings have been objecting to similar lists of books, often complaining about sexually explicit content. (Following West Chester’s decision to keep "Gender Queer," fliers circulated targeting 80 books in the district’s collection — many with LGTBQ themes — and parents at a subsequent meeting voiced concerns about obscenity in books.)
Ward said that groups like No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty have been organizing parents. “There’s a script: ‘This is what you search, what you write,’” she said — adding that when new chapters of the groups form, often book challenges aren’t far behind.
From a librarian’s perspective, Ward said, books are selected for a reason. For some students, a particular book may offer a window to see their own experience reflected, or grapple with an issue they might not yet be ready to broach with an adult.
If a parent doesn’t want their child to read a specific book, that’s fine, and librarians can help families find suitable books, Ward said.
But as for the overall collection, “the library is for everybody,” she said. “We can’t pick and choose which students we’re providing materials for.”
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This story was originally published May 12, 2022 1:00 AM.